When people talk about climate change, they talk about hope. They discuss prospects, ifs thens, and perceived inevitabilities. In the end or from the very beginning the chatter settles around two questions, asked as synonyms:
Do you have hope?
Are you hopeful?
Around two months ago I was couchsurfing with a woman in Guilin (桂林）, one of the backpacker centers of China. It had been a long afternoon of tea and hot sun. Around evening two other couchsurfers returned to the apartment. They were brothers from Germany. The smaller one, who somehow seemed the elder of the two, had studied public policy for a semester in Beijing, and he and I began talking about 360bybike and his work. Eventually he popped the question.
Are you hopeful?
he asked, meaning
Do you have hope?
It happens on occasion with new acquaintances, that a whole conversation winds around a central difference of perspective. Hidden, woven through talk of political possibility and art in social change, Are you hopeful? threw our discord into relief. In such light, he was a pessimist of a mild but bitter varietal and I an optimist with only loose tethers to reality.
They are questions like that one which are both fascinating and wholly misdirected. Our answers (Me: We have to. He: How could I?) show only distorted relief, shadows cast from light too weak or far away. The half-truth pestered me for weeks afterwards, the question’s gentle condescension tearing at whatever convictions I had built up at the time. Are you really spending years on such a nebulous project, it elaborated, how do you even measure any change you bring, and for God’s sake, how did we get on this road we’re on, even after so much effort.
After some weeks, a thought percolated down to consciousness.
I play the piano in my spare time. I started when I was young but I didn’t stick with it, dropped it in middle school in exchange for drums which were cooler. My fingers are not clever now, but I practice when I can. Last year I practiced in a building with all of the windows painted open or broken. The pianos were hand-me-downs from my school’s music majors, with keys stuck and pedals broken and none of them in tune. The sidewalk filled with the sound of all 30 or so pianos at once–they were always occupied–notes after notes that always seemed to be falling in a great torrent.
Now I carry a copy of the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata in folder with my visa paperwork. There’s never a universal opinion on art, but it seems that every time the piece comes up someone says “Oh! That’s my favorite. It’s so beautiful.” Then there’s a pause, and someone, sometimes even the same person, says “But it’s so sad.”
I love it too, the way it feels when played, quiet and even and true. But not sad. The voice of it reaches places of pain and of sorrow, but then it keeps going. It writhes free, it notes fragments of the world beyond itself, the tree with the lights in it and the multitudes within.
When I play that piece, I feel neither sadness or hope, but an abiding cousin of each, one that holds through storms and drought and long nights. Constant.
I’ve met too many activists betrayed by the momentum of society. Listless, they soldier on out of duty alone. I’ve met too many others whose high hopes, intact or ruined, numb them to the urgency of change. Such an unstable relationship with hope is unhealthy, and leaves too much room for inaction. I suggest that we ought to be hopeful but never hold too tightly to any one source, that hope for such large scale issues is to be found on a much smaller scale, and that its fragments lie in stories given voice.